Saturday, January 08, 2011

The last Kodachrome day

Kodachrome, the iconic color slide film, is history.  The last rolls were processed December 30, 2010 at Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the only remaining processing facility in the world.  The news of its demise is not new or unexpected.  The IBM Selectric typewriter, dial phones, lace-up ski boots went before.  Life changes, stuff changes, people adapt, probably all for the better.

Anyone who made photographs with the film that has been around since 1935 knows of its color characteristics that were like no other film. Bright, vibrant, saturated images.  

My use of the film over the years was not as extensive as those in the magazine business, National Geographic, Geo, and the like.  During my newspaper career the dominant film was Kodak Tri-X, a black and white film that could be tweaked during the development process using various developing concoctions.  Edwal, Rodinal, Kodak, often with an added 9% sodium sulfite solution that helped control the contrast range.  Printing a black and white negative with both shadow and highlight detail was a rewarding process.  The drawback, of course, was trying to replicate a perfect print. 

Kodachrome was the film of choice for me during my Peace Corps tour in Malaysia in 1969-1971 and learning to use it correctly helped my enthusiasm for photojournalism in the first years of my career.  The most important factor was to control highlight exposure.  In the digital world of today that is still the case.

Kodak Tri-X, was just about opposite.  Expose for the shadows without overexposing the highlights and a lot of that could be controlled during film development.  Kodachrome was unforgiving.  Get it right in the camera.

Throughout the remainder of the last century, I always took Kodachrome along on vacations, pictures of my children.  Those images still look great, stored away in archival sleeves.  There are two memories now:  the subjects and the medium.

I found five rolls of Kodachrome 64, 24 exposures on eBay from a seller who promised the film had been refrigerated and that the 2007 date on the box was not an issue.  The film came in the mail and I put it in the back of my fridge while I thought about how I was going to use it. 

The weather around central Oregon in November was spotty, and mostly one gray day after another.  I needed sparkling, crisp days.  Time was becoming an issue. I didn’t want to use the film for a set of pictures of scenics.  I needed more of a challenge.  Could I still make credible photographs with a 35mm camera, no motor drive and manual settings in an active setting?

The USA Cyclocross Championships in Bend provided that opportunity.  Sunday, December 12th was the day.  I began the day with stops at two of my favorite locations, the Metolius Wild and Scenic River, and a viewpoint of the Three Sisters peaks.  One roll gone.

On to Bend for the cyclocross races in Bend.  I chose to shoot the Elite women’s final using three of the remaining rolls, saving one roll for another scene at dusk.  The race is on a loop course so I could move around to several locations to get a sense of what the event is about.  I also tried to concentrate on the best rider, Katie Compton, who was defending her championship title.  During the race that lasted about an hour I thought I was doing o.k. with exposure.   Timing, light and composition were on my mind as well.  One frame after another.   I had about 12 frames left on the third roll and wedged my way into a spot along the barricade near the finish line with the hope of getting a decent frame of Compton as she was about to win the race.  Serendipity was on my side.  She cruised in front of me and raised her arms in perfect form.  Did I get the frame?  Was it sharp? 

After the women’s race I switched my Nikon FE for the Canon digital cameras and went back to shoot the Elite men’s race.  It was more apparent than I’d ever realized how digital has changed my shooting style.  More latitude to take visual chances, no film canisters to change, mechanical freedom.

The last roll was used to photograph an old World War II Army ambulance that is parked outside the VFW Hall 4108 in Redmond, a few miles north of Bend.  The rig is lit up for the holidays with strings of lights, Santa as the driver.  It’s a melancholy scene and a fitting conclusion to my last day with Kodachrome.

The film was shipped to Dwayne’s.  The lab was inundated with rolls of film coming in from all over the world so I wasn’t expecting a quick turnaround.  There wasn’t.  Twenty-six days later I got my five developed rolls back.  I still have a small light table and a viewing loupe and I examined the individual slides slowly looking for the frames that had some merit. 

The scenics looked good, the Army ambulance was nice.  What I wanted to see was Katie Compton finishing the race.  I found the single frame and was relieved to see exactly what I’d hoped for.  Timing, light, composition.  She won the championship again I had felt like I’d paid a tribute to a championship film.